How to grab Mac screenshots like a pro

By , Jul 29, 2014

OS X Mavericks (Grab icon, full size)

Ever since the dawn of the Computer Age, screenshots have been essential. Images showing software in action are used all over the web, on social media and in specialized magazines.

Blog about software, you’ll need screenshots. Putting together a useful how-to like this one, are we? Good, you’ll need even more screenshots.

Want to get your point across in an unambiguous manner? You’re definitely going to need memorable screenshots to illustrate your point effectively.

There are plenty applications, both paid and free, which allow you to grab screenshots, such as Skitch from Evernote, for example. But allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret: you don’t need any of them.

Assuming you’re in the vast majority of the population whose needs don’t go beyond grabbing screens, or are among the group that has no use for advanced annotation and image management capabilities, Apple has you covered.

I myself have never used a third-party app to grab screenshots. How’s so? Because OS X sports a compelling set of built-in shortcuts for taking different types of screen images in an instant, without having to even launch any kind of app.

Still, it’s surprising just how many folks are totally oblivious to the fact they can capture Mac screenshots. That being said, we’ve reckoned to do something about it.

This comprehensive tutorial will teach you how to take screenshots on your Mac like a pro and have fun in the process.

Before we dive into the subject, I’d just like to spend a few words talking about the basics to get you up to speed.

A screenshot is a picture of your Mac’s screen, or a portion of it. In Mac OS X 10.6 and later, screenshots get saved as image files in the PNG format, on the desktop. OS X automatically names them “Screen shot (date and time).png.”

You can change both the location of your saved screenshots and their image format with a few simple Terminal commands.

Various types of screenshots are grabbed using a handful of easily memorizable keystrokes (more on that later). Have you changed your mind in the middle of the capture process and decided that you don’t really want to grab a screenshot? No problem, just press the Escape key before you release the mouse button.

And should you prefer to have screenshots saved in the system clipboard to paste the picture into a document, hold down the Control key while you press the screenshot-taking keystrokes.

And lastly, a word of caution: certain apps may hide copy-protected content by not allowing you to take pictures of the screen, such as DVD Player, QuickTime and iTunes.

Before we get going, here is a summary of what we’re going to look at:

Table of contents

OK, here we go.

How to capture the whole screen

Step 1: This one’s a no-brainer. Just hit the ⌘-Shift-3 key combo simultaneously and OS X will capture a full-resolution image of whatever is displayed on the whole screen. Here’s a screenshot of my 13-inch MacBook Air desktop.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 001)

Tip: You can use the key combo to capture the whole screen at any time, even if you’re in the middle of dragging an item in Finder. Here I’ve captured my desktop whilst dragging the Messages app around.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 002)

How to capture some of your screen

Step 1: To capture a custom rectangular portion of the screen, use the ⌘-Shift-4 keystroke. This will turn the mouse pointer into a crosshair symbol like this.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 003)

Step 2: To select your capture area, first position the cursor in its upper left corner.

Step 3: Now hold down the mouse button, drag to define the rectangular area and release to capture. Here’s an example screenshot of iTunes on my desktop.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 005)

Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?

Yeah, the desktop wallpaper is visible in the background. Yes, I could have tediously restricted my capture area to the window boundaries, as pictured below.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 006)

That would have been of little help because windows in OS X have rounder corners, requiring additional steps in an image editing app to remove unwanted pixels.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 007)

Wouldn’t it be great if OS X allowed you to grab only an app window and nothing else?

How to capture a specific window

Step 1: To capture a specific window, first hit ⌘-Shift-4 on the keyboard and then press the Space bar. The mouse pointer will turn into a camera symbol.

Step 2: Now move the camera pointer over the window to highlight it before pressing the mouse button. Voila! The image of the window – and window alone – is captured.

Here’s a screenshot of the Finder window.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 004)

This works with open Finder windows, modal windows, panels and most app windows.

Tip: I’m willing to eat my hat if your desktop isn’t littered with multiple windows. OS X handles these types of scenarios with ease. You just move the camera pointer over a desired window – it doesn’t have to be in the foreground – press the mouse button and OS X will do the right thing.

Here you can see me capturing a Finder window that’s in the background, without bringing it to the foreground first.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 008)

Sometimes, you may want to grab specific parts of the Mac’s interface other than windows. For instance, you may want to capture an app’s menu or the Mac’s menu bar.

Worry not, Apple has you covered!

How to capture the Mac’s menu bar

Step 1: Press ⌘-Shift-4 and then Space. Now drag the camera pointer to highlight the menu bar. Release the mouse button to capture.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 009)

Tip: To capture a screenshot of third-party and OS X system menu bar icons sitting in the right corner of the Mac’s menu bar, just move the camera pointer over a specific icon or an icon group and then click the mouse button.

Here’s a screenshot of the Spotlight icon I captured from the menu bar.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 010)

And here’s another one of Apple’s standard system icons.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 011)

As you can see for yourself, capturing the menu bar items removes the gray menu shade altogether, leaving you only with plain pictograms.

How to capture a menu

Step 1: First, you need to click the menu in order to reveal its contents.

Step 2: Next, press ⌘-Shift-4 and drag the camera pointer over a desired area. Release the mouse button to capture.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 012)

On the downside, this method requires pixel-perfect precision to ensure that the selection area includes only menu graphics. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

How to capture a menu without the title

Step 1: Click the menu to reveal its contents.

Step 2: Now press ⌘-Shift-4 and then Space bar. Highlight the drop-down menu with the camera pointer, like this, and click the mouse button to capture.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 013)

This is what you’ll end up with.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 014)

Sweet, no?

Tip: If you author tutorials or how-tos, perhaps you want to emphasize a specific menu item? You can do that, too.

Simply highlight a menu item before hitting the ⌘-Shift-4 and Space bar combo. Here’s the Finder’s View menu with the “as List” option highlighted in blue.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 015)

Tip: If for some reason you want to delay the capture for a few seconds, use the stock OS X app called Grab – it’s in your Applications folder.

Mastering the Grab app

Available under Grab’s Capture menu, you can choose to grab a Selection, Window, Screen or Timed Screen.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 014)

After choosing Timed Screen and hitting the Start Timer button, Grab will capture the screen after ten seconds. The app offers other features that will take your screenshot-taking skills to the next level so it pays to spend some time with Grab to see how it works for you.

Grab offers eight custom pointers (below) and lets you turn off the capture sound.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 016)

One of the great features about Grab that you don’t get when capturing screenshots via keystrokes is its pointer which shows pixel coordinates for ultimate control. It’s also cool that it lets you capture the whole screen with a custom pointer superimposed where you click.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 015)
Grab: capturing Mission Control with a custom pointer superimposed over “Desktop 3″

To see information about the screenshot, choose Edit > Inspector. Note that Grab only saves screenshots in the TIFF format.

Screenshot-taking keyboard shortcuts

Capture the entire screen ― ⌘-Shift-3

Capture some of your screen ― ⌘-Shift-4, then drag the crosshair pointer over a desired area and release the mouse button. You can use one of the modifier keys below, or a combination of them, while dragging.

Modifier keys – For accurate control over the area selection, use one or more modifier keys listed below. After invoking either the ⌘-Shift-3 or ⌘-Shift-4 combo, start dragging the crosshair pointer to select your capture area. Now release the keys while continuing to press the mouse button and then hold one or more of the modifier keys. This will change how the selection area is being defined, as described below. When you’re ready to take a picture, release the mouse button.

Shift ― Resize the selection area only horizontally or vertically.
Option ― Resize the selection area from the center out.
Space bar ― Move the selection area around.

Capture to clipboard ― Hold down the Control key while you press the other keys to save the screenshot in clipboard so you can paste the image directly into a document.

Capture a specific window ― ⌘-Shift-4 then Space bar. Move the camera pointer over a window to highlight it and then click the mouse button.

Capture the Mac’s menu bar ― ⌘-Shift-4 and then Space bar. Now move the camera pointer to highlight the Mac’s menu bar and click the mouse button.

Capture a menu ― First click a menu to reveal its contents. Then hit ⌘-Shift-4, drag the crosshair pointer over a desired area and release the mouse button.

Capture a menu without the title ― Click the menu to reveal its contents. Hit ⌘-Shift-4 and then Space bar. Now move the camera pointer to highlight the pull-down menu and click the mouse button.

Cancel any screen capture in progress ― ESC before you click.

You can always bring up these shortcuts using the Mac’s built-in help.

Just type “screenshot” into the Finder’s Help menu and choose “Take pictures of the screen” from the list of available resources.

How to take Mac screenshot (image 017)

Check out these related articles:

I hope you find this tutorial helpful.

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words couldn’t be more true. With that in mind, let me once again emphasize that it pays to learn a few simple keystrokes to become the Master Screenshot-Taker.

As per usual, if you’ve stumbled upon related tips or have thought of another great idea for future how-tos, do drop us a line on tips@iDownloadBlog.com and we’ll take each and every one of your submissions into consideration for upcoming articles.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/user/PrsnSinghHD Prasoon Singh

    You seriously wrote an article on how to take a “professional screenshot” article? Just do cmd+shift 3 to take a screenshot of the entire screen or cmd+shift+4 and select an area that you want to take a screenshot.

    • Adham

      Did you read the whole article? He goes into more detail than just the use of the two shortcuts.

    • http://www.idownloadblog.com Sebastien

      Typical comment of the guy who didn’t read past the headline

      • Jonathan

        ^this.

    • Frank Anthony

      Mr. too know! I learnt a lot from this article and enjoyed every detail. Thanks iDB and keep it coming please!

    • Jacob S

      I thought the same way right after reading the headline. But I decided to read the article and I found it is awesome tutorial. I didn’t know anything beyond the basics as you said. I have bookmarked this article for future reference. Thanks IDB and Christian for the great effort. Priceless!

    • Kr00

      I gather your a “Guest” for obvious reasons.

      If down voting still existed, you’d be at -45.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ardchoille42 Ian MacGregor

    Nice tutorial, taught me a few things that I didn’t know. Thank you!

  • Adham

    Well written tutorial. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Also learned quite a few new tricks!

  • Mike Colacone Saal

    i knew about command shift 4 but didn’t know about the space bar portion, awesome tutorial, Christian.

  • Jonathan

    Wow, thank you Christian! I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this just yesterday..

    • InfinitePlusOne

      Use Win+PrntScrn to get full desktop screenshot on windows. It gets saved in Pictures folder in User area.

  • Ashley Bowser

    I appreciate the tutorial. I tried out quite a few of them on the fly while reading the tutorial. Nice work. Thanks!

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/PrsnSinghHD Prasoon Singh

    Sorry about my comment earlier.

  • Stefano

    Christian, this tutorial was awesome and taught me some things I didn’t know. But is it possible to take a screenshot of a window without the top and bottom, and just what’s in the window? Also, can we beef up the ppi/pixel density of the screenshot?

    • Kr00

      You can just crop those things out post capture, using Preview. Pixel ratio is set.

    • http://www.idownloadblog.com/author/dujkan Christian Zibreg

      Not that I’m aware of, but as @disqus_xteOotDqz0:disqus has mentioned, you can just capture the whole window and use Preview to crop out the parts you don’t need.

  • White Michael Jackson

    any tips for windows users? I use windows exclusively on my mac… dont judge me.

    • James Gunaca

      Print screen copies the whole screen to your clipboard. You can also use the Snipping Tool built into Windows Vista onward.

    • pdrake007

      Have a look at a program called Greenshot, when running its activated by pressing press print screen but gives you a huge amount more control over what you do than just copying the whole screen.

    • Jonathan

      See my comment above in here. :)

    • https://twitter.com/MrElectrifyer MrElectrifyer

      Most of the above (except the timed screen shot) is already doable via the built-in Snipping Tool. With the addition of a Free-form snipping mode; which is mostly handy for digitizer-equipped PCs like my Surface Pro 2.

      To snip an application’s window, open the Snipping tool (by typing Snip in the Star Menu/Screen), select “Window Snip” from it’s “New” drop-down menu and click the application window which you want to capture.

      To snip the full-screen, open the Snipping tool (I recommend assigning a keyboard shortcut to launch it, I use Ctrl + Alt + S), and select “Full-screen Snip” from it’s “New” drop-down menu. Alternatively (in Windows 8), you can press “Win + Prnt Scrn” on your keyboard to automatically save a full-screen snip to a “Screenshot” folder in your picture library. Or, you can use the old classic method by just pressing “Prn Scrn” on your keyboard and pasting the full-screen snip in say Paint for editing purposes or just to save it.

      To snip a portion of the screen, open the Snipping tool, select “Rectangular Snip” OR “Free-form Snip” from it’s “New” drop-down menu and use cross-head cursor to select the portion of the screen you want to snip.

      To snip the taskbar, click on the taskbar to put it in focus and press “Alt + Prnt Scrn” on your keyboard; this will copy the snip to your clipboard and you can paste it in Paint to do as you please or just save it. This also works as a shortcut for snipping the current application window that’s in focus and copying it to the clipboard.

      To snip a menu, open the Snipping tool and ensure “Rectangular Snip” OR “Free-form Snip” is the selected mode in it’s “New” drop-down menu, open the menu you want to snip and press “Ctrl + Prnt Scrn” on your keyboard; this will activate the selected snipping mode with the menu open, now you can snip the menu. This will also work for snipping parts of metro/modern applications or just your Start Screen in Windows 8.

  • James Gunaca

    A lot of these are really awesome tips & tricks but screenshots also benefit from some markup which OS X currently does not have built in which is why I use Skitch. But I learned a lot from this post; thanks.

    • nazcorp

      Preview has markup tools. Open a picture and in preview there is a toolbox on the menu bar. ;)

  • Biscuit

    Great article.

  • InfinitePlusOne

    I can’t believe I just read this article even though I don’t even have a Mac.

  • Hackintosh User

    Great Tips. Thanks

  • Nerio Bogoni Jr

    Hello everyone! I’ve always wondered if there is a way of increasing screenshots image quality on OsX. I never found anything helpful at all. What i use is set the image standard for screenshots in pdf via terminal command. But even pgn, jpg or pdf, image is not very sharp. Any hints to improve that?

    • http://www.idownloadblog.com/author/dujkan Christian Zibreg

      Screenshots are as sharp as these things get. Meaning, pixel-perfect accuracy with lossless compression if you default to PNG. No way to increase screenshot quality in OS X other than choose the file format through Terminal commands.

  • nazcorp

    Christian amazing and thorough article. I should have known them all for an undisclosed reason – but didn’t. So I learned a lot. Thank you!!

  • hulksince93

    This article was so helpful. I was struggling on how to take screenshot of the part of the screen. Hats off